One of the protests at the state Capitol against the law to eliminate the religious exemption to childhood vaccination requirements for public schools.
One of several protests at the state Capitol against the law to eliminate the religious exemption to childhood vaccination requirements for public schools. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

This week two families filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ned Lamont and his education and public health commissioners asking the court to allow schools to continue the religious exemption for childhood vaccines, which was repealed by lawmakers in April 2021.

The lawsuit, filed in Stamford Superior Court, asks for a preliminary injunction and is different from previous lawsuits filed seeking to overturn the law – all of which have failed. 

“We do not believe the repeal bill will survive strict scrutiny, the judicial standard required in Connecticut,” Attorney Kevin Barry said Thursday. “The right to education and the right to free exercise of religion are both ‘forever’ rights, according to the state Constitution.” 

The lawsuit says the repeal violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the right to a free public education. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say Connecticut is one of 21 states with a Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the only state that sought to repeal the religious exemption. They say it requires a higher level of judicial scrutiny. 

New York, California, and Maine have also repealed religious exemption laws, but those states do not have a state RFRA law.

Speaker of the House Matt Ritter said Thursday that the law is now going on 15 months and it’s “settled law.” 

He said there wasn’t any legislation this recent legislative session seeking to overturn the repeal.

He said the law doesn’t prohibit anyone from exercising their right to their religion, but it protects all children from common childhood illnesses that spread in community settings. 

Keira Spillane of Orange and Anna Kehle of Greenwich are the two plaintiffs in the case. 

Spillane’s kindergartener was grandfathered in under the law passed in 2021, but her 3-year-old sibling will not be when they enter school in the fall of 2022. 

Kehele has an 8-year-old child with a religious exemption and her 4-year-old child, who attends pre-K, will have her religious exemption removed if she wants to enter school in the fall of 2022.

The two families argue they will not be able to send their younger children to school without violating their religious beliefs. 

“Plaintiffs also object to the compelled vaccination of their children because it is their sincerely held religious belief that our bodies are our temples where in lies the Holy Spirit and vaccines desecrate the Holy temples of their children’s bodies by forever altering their innate immune systems,” the lawsuit states.

Ritter said the law doesn’t mandate vaccination. 

“We don’t need a New York lawyer coming into Connecticut to tell us what to do and to challenge our public health laws. But sadly I am not surprised. Make no mistake — if successful, this lawsuit will make people, including our kids, less safe and vulnerable to entirely preventable diseases.  That is why we will vigorously defend the legislature’s actions designed to protect public health,” Attorney General William Tong said Thursday.

In 2019, Tong wrote an opinion that says he doesn’t believe repealing the religious exemption violates the state constitution. 

“There is no serious or reasonable dispute as to the State’s broad authority to require and regulate immunizations for children: the law is clear that the State of Connecticut may create, eliminate or suspend the religious exemption in Section 10-204a(a) in accordance with its well-settled power to protect public health and safety,” Tong wrote at the time.

“Despite a diligent search, we have been unable to find a Connecticut case that has held that a religious exemption from school vaccinations was constitutionally required,” Tong wrote. “On the contrary, over 100 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld mandatory school immunizations. Bissell v. Davison, 65 Conn. 183 (1894). More recently, a superior court case has upheld the constitutional dimensions of immunization in the context of a child custody case.”

In the custody case, Tong said the court noted that “religious freedom in this country is not an absolute right” and that “the right of parents to raise their children in accord with their personal and religious beliefs must yield when the health of the child is at risk or when there is a recognized threat to public safety.”